I was well into my 20s before I set down to a platter of catfish fillets. I was raised eating catfish either fried whole or cut into steaks.
My dad probably didn’t even know what a fillet was. Had he known, I’m positive he would have considered the practice of filleting a waste of good fish.
The bigger catfish were “steaked” or cut, bone-in, into frying-size chunks and smaller catfish between 10-12 inches that fit into a frying pan whole were cleaned, skinned, heads removed and then seasoned with salt and pepper, dusted with cornmeal and fried until they were a crunchy golden brown.
After devouring a few of tasty catfish prepared in this manner a couple of days ago, I found myself wondering why I had abandoned the practice of skinning smaller catfish years ago.
Lake Tawakoni is heralded as one of the best catfish lakes west of the Mississippi, possibly the best. The lake’s emerald green waters are chock-full of giant blue catfish that draw anglers from all across the country each fall and winter to do battle with the biggest catfish of their lives.
Tawakoni is also well known for providing red-hot action during the summer months on channel catfish in the 10-14 inch range. Most serious catfish anglers agree that the channel cats at Lake Fork are, on average, some of the biggest in the state, but few would disagree that for sheer numbers of the “fryer-size” channel catfish I’m referencing, Lake Tawakoni is definitely a “numbers” channel catfish fishery.
Tony Pennebaker eased his big pontoon guide boat up to one of his favorite spots adjacent the submerged Sabine River Channel. A glance at the graph indicated we were positioned over the slope of the riverbank and what appeared to be a downed tree trunk with limbs lay on the bottom. Any catfish angler worth his salt would know at a glance that we were in prime waters for catching summer catfish.
Pennebaker guides for blue catfish during much of the year, but when the channel catfishing gets as good as it is now, beginning in late spring, he switches from cut shad to No. 6 treble hooks baited with punch bait.
“There has been a tremendous emphasis put on the blue catfish here at Tawakoni during the past few years,” Pennebaker said, “not only for the trophy fish but the eaters weighing 2-10 pounds as well. It seems fewer folks are fishing for the channel catfish and their numbers are the best I’ve even seen here.
“I still run blue catfish trips in the summer months and we average between four and six fish per hour, with an occasional double-digit fish landed. This is fun fishing with the opportunity to catch larger catfish but for pure fishing fun and lots of action, most folks prefer the channel cats right now.”
This was the first time Pennebaker had used the new “Trapper Hooks” by Trapper Tackle (trappertackle.com). These hooks are very strong and have a super sharp barb which results in a quick hook set.
The 90-degree slot, or “trap,” in the hooks is what really sets them apart. Once the fish’s lip is penetrated by the point of the hook, this slot insures it’s not easily coming off.
We were using the Trapper No. 6 treble hook and found it formed a cradle of sorts that was perfect for holding catfish punch bait. The company also offers hooks designed for rigging soft plastics Texas-style and live bait hooks.
Some of the fish we caught hammered the punch bait and basically set the hook themselves, but other bites were tentative, with only the slightest indication of a bite telegraphed up through the fishing line.
A slight upward twitch on the rod, using these super sharp hooks is the ticket to getting the hook set. I always thought it odd that some of the biggest channel catfish often have a very soft bite.
My theory on this is that the bigger fish don’t need to be as aggressive as the smaller ones that have to be quick in order to eat. I picture the bigger fish swimming up to the bait and leisurely chowing down without competition while the smaller fish swarm the bait and greedily attempt to eat it all.
But what do I know – just another theory of an old fisherman still trying to figure out the subtle things I used to simply take for granted.
We were using small bait casting reels on light, sensitive rods and braid line. I usually use lightweight spinning rigs for channel catfish, but after fishing with these downsized bait casters of Tony’s, I think I’ll be shopping for a new rig.
I like the ability to keep pressure on the line as it’s falling and in doing so, I detected the subtle bite and actually set the hook on several catfish holding a few feet up from bottom.
Watching Pennebaker butcher these catfish was a study in efficiency and perfection. Using an electric knife, he made an initial cut well below the spine near the back of the fish’s head. The cut continued out past the anal opening. This one cut that took only seconds effectively gutted the catfish.
Next, he skinned the fish and then with a twist of the wrist, removed the head, leaving the whole catfish, ready for the frying pan.
If catching big catfish is your goal, you’ll want to opt for the slower bite (during the summer) on the blues, but if lots of action and some mighty fine eating is your desire, consider a summer trip for channel catfish.
Contact guide Tony Pennebaker at Lake Tawakoni Marina at 903-474-3078.